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I Ching Hexagram 18 - Ku / Work on what has been spoiled (Decay)

hexgram 18
  • Above Ken Keeping Still, Mountain
  • Below Sun the Gentle, Wind


The Chinese character ku represents a bowl in whose contents worms are breeding. This means decay. It is come about because the gentle indifference in the lower trigram has come together with the rigid inertia of the upper, and the result is stagnation. Since this implies guilt, the conditions embody a demand for removal of the cause. Hence the meaning of the hexagram is not simply 'what has been spoiled' but 'work on what has been spoiled'.

See the James Legge translation of this hexagram.

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Work on what has been spoiled Has supreme success. It furthers one to cross the great water; Before the starting point, three days. After the starting point, three days.

Judgement Commentary

What has been spoiled through man's fault can be made good again through man's work. It is not immutable fate, as in the time of Standstill, that has caused the state of corruption, but rather the abuse of human freedom. Work toward improving conditions promises well, because it accords the possibilities of the time. We must not recoil from work and danger-symbolized by crossing of the great water-but must take hold energetically. Success depends, however, on proper deliberation. This is expressed by the lines, Before the starting point, three days. After the starting point, three days. We must first know the cause of corruption before we can do away with them; hence it is necessary to be cautious during the time before the start. Then we must see to it that the new way is safely entered upon, so that a relapse may be avoided; therefore we must pay attention to the time after the start. Decisiveness and energy must take the place of inertia and indifference that have led to decay, in order that the ending may be followed by a new beginning.

The Image

The wind blows low on the mountain: The image of Decay. Thus the superior man stirs up the people and strengthens their spirit.

Image Commentary

When the wind blows slow on the mountain, it is thrown back and spoils the vegetation. This contains a challenge to improvement. It is the same with debasing attitudes and fashions; they corrupt human society. His methods likewise must be derived from the two trigrams, but in such a way that their effects unfold in orderly sequence. The superior must first remove stagnation by stirring up public opinion, as the wind stirs up everything, and must strengthen and tranquilize the character of the people, as the mountain gives tranquillity and nourishment to all that grows in its vicinity.

The Lines

Six in the beginning means: Setting right what has been spoiled by the father. If there is a son, No blame rests upon the departed father. Danger. In the end good fortune.

Rigid adherence to tradition has resulted in decay. But the decay has not yet penetrated deeply and so can still be easily remedied. It is as if a son were compensated for the decay his father allowed to creep in. Then no blame attaches to the father. However, one must not overlook the danger or take the matter too lightly. Only if one is conscious of the danger connected with every reform will everything go well in the end.

Changing only this line creates Hexagram 26 - Ta Chu / The Taming Power of the Great. Decay has only just started and can therefore be dealt with relatively easily. Do not, however delay. If one starts work on correction quickly good fortune. Legge adds "The position is perilous..." you, as the good son must act quickly. The resultant hexagram 26, The Taming Power of the Great, makes clear that we will ultimately be successfully but perseverance in the good is required.

Nine in the second place means: Setting right what has been spoiled by the mother. One must not be too persevering.

This refers to mistakes that as a result of weakness have brought about decay-hence the symbol, what has been spoiled by the mother. In setting things right in such a case, a certain gentle consideration is called for. In order not to wound, one should not attempt to proceed too drastically.

Changing only this line creates Hexagram 52 - Ken / Keeping Still, Mountain. Correcting ones mother is dangerous and should be done carefully and gently. Those who counsel weakness need to be corrected, but not to strongly as to cause offence. A close relationship can not be allowed to dictate ones behaviour and choices when it is mistaken. Legge puts this lines meaning in the same way. Do not let a close relationship sway you from the right decision. The resultant hexagram 52, suggests that this line leads to an attitude of certainty and calmness that perhaps is lacking before the decision to stand up for yourself.

Nine in the third place means: Setting right what has been spoiled by the father. There will be a little remorse. No great blame.

This describes a man who proceeds a little too energetically in righting the mistakes of the past. Now and then, as a result, minor discourse and annoyances will surely develop. But too much energy is better than too little. Therefore, although he may at times have slight cause for regret, he remains free of any serious blame.

Changing only this line creates Hexagram 4 - Meng / Youthful Folly. Here we have robust behaviour that goes overboard in its enthusiasm to correct past mistakes. Is the trouble that results worth the improvement gained? Legge puts it "...its subject might well go to excess in his efforts" but nevertheless there is not any real problem caused by this. No indication of good fortune or success is given for this line. The resultant hexagram 4, Youthful Folly reinforces the idea of youthfully enthusiasm and gives good advice on how to counteract its negative effects.

Six in the fourth place means: Tolerating what has been spoiled by the father. In continuing one sees humiliation.

This shows the situation of someone too weak to take measures against decay that has its roots in the past and is just beginning to manifest itself. It is allowed to run its course. If this continues, humiliation will result.

Changing only this line creates Hexagram 50 - Ting / The Caldron. This is another of the apparently negative lines that ultimately result in a good outcome. Even though this line wants to act to correct problems its weakness means it can not. Legge has a slightly more negative view when he states "...a son viewing indulgently the troubles caused by his father". The resultant hexagram 50, The Caldron, predicts supreme good fortune and success so perhaps the lesson here is that some problems resolve themselves without our intervention, no matter how much we would like to get involved.

Six in the fifth place means: Setting right what has been spoiled by the father. One meets with praise.

An individual is confronted with corruption originating from neglect in former times. He lacks the power to ward it off alone, but with able helpers he can at least bring about a thorough reform, if he cannot create a new beginning, and this also is praiseworthy.

Changing only this line creates Hexagram 57 Sun / The Gentle (The Penetrating, Wind). By getting help we successfully deal with the problems we inherited. The resultant hexagram 57 shows that we prevail through a determined, persistent effort that never gives up. Legge describes the rewards "He obtains the praise of using the fit instrument for his work."

Nine at the top means: He does not serve kings and princes. Sets himself higher goals.

Not every man has an obligation to mingle in the affairs of the world. There are some who are developed to such a degree that they are justified in letting the world go its own way and refusing to enter public life with a view to reforming it. But this does not imply a right to remain idle or to sit back and merely criticize. Such withdrawal is justified only when we strive to realize in ourselves the higher aims of mankind. For although the sage remains distant from the turmoil of daily life, he creates incomparable human values for the future.

Changing only this line creates Hexagram 46 - Sheng / Pushing Upward. Sometimes we can best contribute to repairing inherited problems by taking a higher view and providing a good example for those still enmeshed in societies woes. Ultimately the way people live is informed by the examples they have. This line shows how setting a good example can have a powerfully positive effect. Legge again, puts it well "...he does not serve kings and princes. Sets himself higher goals." The resultant hexagram 46, shows a steady process of improvement leading to supreme success and good fortune.

See the James Legge - I Ching Hexagram 18 - Ku / Work on what has been spoiled (Decay) translation of this hexagram.